Two Items Today:
First,... Two Questions from a Reader:
1. Saw surveyors at Holy Spirit Today. Is our church being sold or being refinanced? Why doesn't anybody tell us anything anymore?
2. If the mortgage on our building is Paid-in-Full, why do we keep having second collections every Sunday for the Church Building Fund?
A Test of Faith?
January 16, 2005
Although green is the color of Ordinary Time, some of our most dedicated youth ministers at Holy Spirit Parish must be wondering, considering the “pink slips” they have been receiving recently via the pastoral agency of the US Postal Service. In essence the certified letters they have been receiving state that due to “recent events” at the parish, the religious education program for youth is undergoing some changes that will no longer require their services. Perhaps the first sign of the changes to come was seen yesterday, January 15, when – under the direction of Deacon Gerbermann and members of the Blue Army – the youth in the monthly Confirmation class were greeted with a test requiring them to demonstrate if they understand “what being a Catholic means.” The test consisted of 15 questions (e.g.: naming the capital sins; naming the fruits of the Spirit) and writing out the text to five memorized prayers.
Apparently, the first order of business is to assess what our students know intellectually. Fair enough. But, is this approach necessarily the best or the correct one to use when considering that growth in faith is a developmental journey, which must take into account the stage of faith development typical of adolescence? In other words, will a content-focused approach support young people in their journey of faith, and help them truly grow as Christians? I would propose the following thesis in response to this question: while adolescent catechesis must obviously concern itself with cognitive growth, primacy must be given to relationship with Jesus as mediated through relationships with caring adults, with peers, and with the entire parish community through meaningful participation in its life.
Put another way, mature faith engages us through our heads (cognitive: understanding God, fostered principally through study of Scripture and Church teaching), our hearts (affective: knowing God, fostered principally through prayer and worship), and our hands (active: serving God, fostered principally through a life of justice and service to others).
While all three are ultimately important, I contend that primacy must be given during adolescence to fostering the affective and active modes because among the key tasks of adolescent psychological and social development (“grace builds upon nature”) are the need for affiliation (where and to whom do I belong?) and discernment of vocation (what am I to do with my life?). The Christian tradition’s contribution to these searches of adolescence are that we belong to God and to one another in community, and that we are made for service to bring about the kingdom of God through the creation of more just and peaceful world. If these two dimensions (affective, active) are given short shrift in the catechesis of adolescents, we fail them in our responsibilities as a parish and as youth ministers.
In their 1997 document on youth ministry, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that “the ministry of catechesis most effectively promotes the faith development of young and older adolescents when the curriculum is focused on important faith themes of the Church and on the developmental needs and life experiences of adolescents.” (Renewing the Vision, p. 30) Further, Pope John Paul II noted that: "What is needed today is a Church which knows how to respond to the expectations of young people. Jesus wants to enter into dialogue with them and through his body, which is the Church, to propose the possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of their lives. As Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus, so the Church must become the traveling companion of young people. [Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day 1995, Philippines]
In the light of these statements, one must ask about the impetus of the test given to the youth of our parish on January 15. It is likely that the examiners have no inkling concerning the dynamics of adolescent faith development. Beyond ignorance, however, there is also another possible explanation. In their concern to insure that our students are “learning” cognitively about their faith it is likely that the examiners are operating out of their own preferred approach to learning about faith. A research-based model of how students engage in learning about a subject proposes three approaches: surface, deep, and achievement learning. [Biggs, J. B. (1993). ‘What do Inventories of Students’ Learning Processes Really Measure?: A Theoretical Review and Clarification’. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 3–19.] The outline below summarizes the three approaches:
Surface Learner. Motivation: Just wants to pass. Strategies: Focuses on surface meaning. Does the minimum amount of study and reading. Studies at the last minute. Memorizes information. Reproduces ideas from source texts.
Achievement-oriented Learner. Motivation: Wants to get good grades Strategies: Focuses on the task demands. Finds out what the lecturer wants. Follows up all the required references. Manages time carefully and hands in assignments on time. Keeps good notes.
Deep Learner. Motivation: Excited by learning. Strategies: Focuses on the topic. Reads widely. Relates new ideas to previous knowledge. Thinks analytically. Discusses the topic whenever possible.
If one overlays this model over approaches Catholics bring to their own growth in faith, a picture of the current state of Holy Spirit Parish emerges. I would contend that “surface learning” parishioners are those who are minimally engaged in the parish. They remain largely untouched by the current struggle underway for the soul of our parish, concerned only with doing the minimum to get by as Catholics. It is likely that their faith growth was short-changed during their adolescent or young adult years; barring an adult conversion experience, it is unlikely they will move beyond a surface approach. I believe these are the majority of the members of our parish (as is the case in most Catholic parishes). They “just want to pass.”
Those who care about the future of the parish I would propose are either achievement-oriented or deep learners. For the most part (although not exclusively) I believe that many who are now in our Pastor’s “inner circle” – including those who are apparently now going to be catechizing our youth – are “achievement-oriented learners” who are extrinsically motivated to prove that they are “good Catholics.” The extrinsic motivation in some cases is a desire to “help Father” or “please Father.” In other cases I have no doubt that the extrinsic motivation aims higher: a desire to “serve God” or “please God”, but likely motivated ultimately by a concern for their own eternal salvation. They want certainty and clarity. They want to “get good grades.”
Finally, I contend that those of us who are trying to recapture the spirit of what was Holy Spirit parish are principally “deep learners” who are intrinsically motivated. Some of us likely came to Holy Spirit as deep learners, while some were evangelized and catechized into becoming deep learners by the teaching, worship, and service that previously characterized our community. We do not fear ambiguity or the challenge of relating new ideas to previous knowledge. We aren’t afraid of discussion and even welcome debate. Sure, we want to go to heaven, but our motivation is focused on the challenge of living our faith in the real world and in working for a world that more closely mirrors the ideals of the Kingdom of God.
What does all of this have to do with the future of youth catechesis and youth ministry at Holy Spirit? The youth of our parish largely mirror the adult members of our community. There is little doubt that the majority of youth who start attending Confirmation classes begin as surface learners: “I just want to pass; I just want to get the sacrament of Confirmation out of the way.” If their catechetical experience does not expose them to youth ministers and peers who are on a “deep learning” journey, Confirmation will likely become “graduation”, or “I’m outta here; see you when I get married – maybe.” A few, I’m sure, are achievement-oriented learners (“I want and need answers; I want to get to heaven”) or deep learners (“This is important to me, but I have questions and doubts; I want to be able to live this faith in the real world; I want this to make a difference in my life”).
Because faith is ultimately caught and not taught, and because relationships and affiliation are key tasks during the adolescent faith journey, the majority of young surface learners at Holy Spirit will likely not be moved toward deep learning by those who approach faith from an achievement orientation. Let’s face it, all of us – young or old alike – are moved to grow, learn, and change by those who are genuinely excited about the subject at hand (whether it’s history, math, or faith), who know and understand their audience, and who connect with them on a personal level. An approach to adolescent catechesis that tries to determine what you know, instead of who you know, who you are, and how you live your life in the real world, is doomed to failure. Our youth deserve better.
In more ways than one, the January 15 exam of the Confirmation students is but another test of faith for our parish.